Thursday, January 24, 2013

Wilson murder case is news Down Under

A phone call from Australia, of all places, took me back nearly 24 years, to one of the most notorious murders in Wilson history. A television reporter in Australia was looking into what causes women to commit murder, and she stumbled across the case of Patricia Jennings.

I can't answer the question of why Patricia Jennings tortured and murdered her 80-year-old husband, but the jury didn't have to have that answer to convict her of first-degree murder and sentence her to death. Nearly 24 years later, she is still on death row, and her conviction is still under appeal.

Most murders come to the newspaper's attention when it shows up on a police report or the call is heard on the police scanner. The Jennings case came to our attention when a caller (probably anonymous, but I don't remember) told us police had surrounded a room at the Hampton Inn. I sent a reporter to check into it, and we were told someone had died there a day or two before. Only later did we learn that the death was being treated as a homicide, and it would be one of the strangest homicides the town had ever known.

According to reports we heard and later testimony at trial, Patricia Jennings called 911 from the motel room, saying her husband had passed out. When EMS arrived, she reportedly greeted them at the door wearing a black negligee and brown cowboy boots — really! Bill Jennings' corpse lay on the floor, already cool and stiff. The medical examiner would determine he had been dead for hours.

The really sordid stuff came out at trial, which was covered by Elaine Conger, who had just arrived at the Daily Times. I had been at the paper nine years and had been editor for two. I was nervous about assigning a reporter I didn't know well to such a huge and sensitive story, but Elaine did a great job and put in a lot of hours taking down all the sordid details. Testimony dealt with torture allegations and descriptions of blood splatters on the walls and wounds to the poor man's private parts. We called some editorial conferences to talk through how detailed we should be with some of the testimony. In most cases, we decided to be pretty explicit in order to describe just how horrid the murder was.

I assigned reporters to follow up on Mrs. Jennings in subsequent years. I would remember her every time North Carolina executed an inmate, wondering when her time would come. Stephanie Creech did a long piece on the 15th anniversary of the murder, which may still be available in the online archives. The original coverage happened before archives were digitized. Mrs. Jennings refused to be interviewed by our reporters.

Somehow, the Jennings story made its way to Australia and intrigued a TV reporter there. The last email I received said the show's producer had decided to drop the Jennings case because it was still on appeal. So Australian audiences will likely be spared the gruesome details of this case, and I can tuck it away in my memory once again.

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